cast: Tony Leung, Jackie Cheung, Waise Lee, Simon Yam, and Fennie Yuen
producer and director: John Woo
126 minutes (18) 1990
widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jeff Young
Although it’s not quite the all-time cinematic masterpiece that some fans of Asian movies have claimed, John Woo’s Bullet In The Head (aka: Die xue jie tou) is nonetheless a superior example how to mix action and drama with a keen sense of style. This deceptively simple tale of friendships in grave crisis assumes the scope and dimensions of an eventful epic by means of the stark intensity of emotions on display, and their resonance throughout following sequences.
The trio of Ben (Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs), Frank (singer Jackie Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) are inseparable in 1950s’ Hong Kong. But then they go to Vietnam, meet super-cool assassin Luke (Simon Yam, Full Contact), get caught up in the war, and find that when a fortune in gold is up for grabs one of them is willing to betray the others and take all of the loot for himself. It’s a while later that the broken men are reunited with their betrayer to settle the long-standing score…
Originally planned as a prequel to A Better Tomorrow, Woo decided to comment on the widely publicised Tiananmen Square massacre instead, and this film has scenes with tanks and protesters that ably recall that sort of atrocity. The basic plot is also reminiscent of Cimino’s highly-praised The Deer Hunter (1978), in that it follows the misadventures of friends in Vietnam, their shocking tortures in a POW camp, and a moment where one of them survives getting shot in the head.
The women in this unashamedly sentimental drama of honour amidst savagery are only incidental to the story. Ben’s abandoned girlfriend Jane (Fennie Yuen), and exploited Saigon nightclub singer Sally (Yolinda Yam) have marginal impact on the male characters’ motivations. What counts here are unspoken connections between the protagonists, and the pure dynamic strength of the performances, especially by Leung and Yam as the ultimately heroic Ben and Luke. It is worth mentioning that few of Cheung’s music fans would have imagined him capable of playing the singularly tragic role of traumatised Frank. Such a sustained level of violent hysteria and unhinged mania would strain the thespian abilities of a star like Al Pacino, yet Cheung delivers a memorable one-man show in his scenes as a brain damaged junkie. He’s barely able to function, let alone communicate, after his exhibition of raw-edged mortal fears – when Frank is faced with the cruelties of the Vietcong’s POW camp – switches to blindly incoherent rage for his final, unsettling scenes of horror. Even as the film segues from wartime shocker to standard gangster antics, and drifts too close for comfort to disappointing melodrama, we never lose sight of the themes of loyalty and grace versus greed and malice.
To be honest, I’d be inclined to award this film only eight-out-of-ten, but will happily add the extra mark for Hong Kong Legends’ platinum edition, two-disc DVD. The main disc presents a digitally restored and re-mastered anamorphic transfer (enhanced for widescreen TV) with Dolby digital audio in Cantonese with English subtitles, and an English dubbed version. There’s also a commentary by genre expert Bey Logan, but I thought he spent too much time recounting and reviewing the historical events that – partly – make up the film’s backstory. Interesting stuff, to be sure, but such information and thoughts belong in a proper documentary, not a commentary about a work of fiction. (Perhaps Logan was a bit miffed that John Woo could not join him for the recording?)
On the extras’ disc there are five hours of bonus material, including interviews with co-stars Jackie Cheung and Waise Lee. Life Through A Lens is a video retro with John Woo, and there’s another retro piece by Bey Logan. Biting The Bullet is a featurette with actor Simon Yam. Natural Selection offers intriguing anecdotes by film editor David Wu. Tempting Fate, with writer Patrick Leung, considers the movie’s origins. A Walk On The Wild Side deconstructs the combat and fighting scenes with action director Lau Chi-ho. There’s an alternative ending scene, and film notes and cast biographies. All told, a surprising and thoroughly researched package that’s amazing value, and proves once again that HKL are world market leaders in providing high quality content for special edition DVDs.